The World Needs to Stop Using Coal. Why Is It So Hard?
Coal, the fuel that powered the industrial age, has led the planet to the brink of catastrophic climate change.
Scientists have repeatedly warned of its looming dangers, most recently on Friday, when a major scientific report issued by 13 United States government agencies warned that the damage from climate change could knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end if significant steps aren’t taken to rein in warming.
An October report from the United Nations’ scientific panel on global warming found that avoiding the worst devastation would require a radical transformation of the world economy in just a few years.
Central to that transformation: Getting out of coal, and fast.
And yet, three years after the Paris agreement, when world leaders promised action, coal shows no sign of disappearing. While coal use looks certain to eventually wane worldwide, according to the latest assessment by the International Energy Agency, it is not on track to happen anywhere fast enough to avert the worst effects of climate change. Last year, in fact, global production and consumption increased after two years of decline.
Cheap, plentiful and the most polluting of fossil fuels, coal remains the single largest source of energy to generate electricity worldwide. This, even as renewables like solar and wind power are rapidly becoming more affordable. Soon, coal could make no financial sense for its backers.
So, why is coal so hard to quit?
Because coal is a powerful incumbent. It’s there by the millions of tons under the ground. Powerful companies, backed by powerful governments, often in the form of subsidies, are in a rush to grow their markets before it is too late. Banks still profit from it. Big national electricity grids were designed for it. Coal plants can be a surefire way for politicians to deliver cheap electricity — and retain their own power. In some countries, it has been a glistening source of graft.